Tag Archives: US Air Force

Like Afghanistan, Like Niger?

On the scorching edge of the Sahara Desert, the U.S. Air Force is building a base for armed drones, the newest front in America’s battle against the growing extremist threat in Africa’s vast Sahel region.  Three hangars and the first layers of a runway command a sandy, barren field. Niger Air Base 201 is expected to be functional in 2019. The base, a few miles outside Agadez and built at the request of Niger’s government, will eventually house fighter jets and MQ-9 drones transferred from the capital Niamey. The drones, with surveillance and added striking capabilities, will have a range enabling them to reach a number of West and North African countries.

Few knew of the American military’s presence in this desperately poor, remote West African country until October 2018, when an ambush by Islamic State group-linked extremists killed four U.S. soldiers and five Nigeriens.

The $110 million project is the largest troop labor construction project in U.S. history, according to Air Force officials. It will cost $15 million annually to operate…. Already the U.S. military presence here is the second largest in Africa behind the sole permanent U.S. base on the continent, in the tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti.  “We are afraid of falling back into the same situation as in Afghanistan, with many mistakes made by American soldiers who did not always know the difference between a wedding ceremony and a training of terrorist groups,” said Amadou Roufai, a Nigerien administration official.  Civic leader Nouhou Mahamadou also expressed concerns.

“The presence of foreign bases in general and American in particular is a serious surrender of our sovereignty and a serious attack on the morale of the Nigerien military,” he said.

The number of U.S. military personnel in Niger has risen over the past few years from 100 to 800, the second largest concentration in Africa after the 4,000 in Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. About 500 personnel are working on the new air and drone base and the base camp is marked with an American and Nigerien flag.

Excerpts  from Carley Petesch, US Builds Drone Base in Niger, Crossroads of Extremism Fight, Associated Press, April 23, 2018

Space Surveillance Telescope: military use

The most sophisticated space surveillance telescope ever developed is ready to begin tracking thousands of space objects as small as a softball. It’s a boon to space surveillance and science and a new military capability important to the nation and the globe, an Air Force general says.

Developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Space Surveillance Telescope  (SST) is the most sophisticated instrument of its kind ever developed. It was transferred to the Air Force on Oct. 18, 2016, which has plans to operate it jointly with the Royal Australian Air Force….The Air Force will move the SST to Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in Western Australia, operating and maintaining the telescope jointly with the Royal Australian Air Force.The SST also will be a dedicated sensor in the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, operated by the Air Force Space Command.

SST has increased space situational awareness from a narrow view of a few large objects at a time to a widescreen view of 10,000 objects as small as softballs, DARPA says. The telescope also can search an area larger than the continental United States in seconds and survey the entire geosynchronous belt in its field of view –– a quarter of the sky –– multiple times in a night.

Excerpt Advanced Space Surveillance Telescope Has Critical Military Applications, US Department of Defense News, Oct. 22, 2016

Lack of Transparency – Drone Strikes

As scrutiny and debate over the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) [drones or UAVs] by the American military increased last month, the Air Force reversed a policy of sharing the number of airstrikes launched from RPAs in Afghanistan and quietly scrubbed those statistics from previous releases kept on their website.  In October 2012, Air Force Central Command started tallying weapons releases from RPAs, broken down into monthly updates.

The Air Force maintained that policy for the statistics reports for November, December and January. But the February numbers, released March 7, contained empty space where the box of RPA statistics had previously been. Additionally, monthly reports hosted on the Air Force website have had the RPA data removed.   Those files still contained the RPA data as of Feb. 16, according to archived web pages accessed via Archive.org. Metadata included in the new, RPA-less versions of the reports show the files were all created Feb. 22.

Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Bill Speaks said the department was not involved in the decision to remove the statistics. AFCENT did not respond to a request for comment by press time.The data removal coincided with increased scrutiny on RPA policy caused by President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Brennan faced opposition in the Senate over the use of RPAs and his defense of their legality in his role as Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

On Feb. 20, two days before the metadata indicates the scrubbed files were created, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., sent a letter to Brennan saying that he would filibuster the nomination over concerns about using RPA strikes inside the U.S., a threat he carried out for over 12 hours on March 6 (Brennan was confirmed the next day).  That same day, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., told a crowd in South Carolina that strikes by American RPAs have killed 4,700 people.  “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of al-Qaida,” Graham was quoted by the Patch website as saying.

Excerpts, Brian Everstine and Aaron Mehta AF removes RPA airstrike number from summary, Air Force Times, Mar 8, 2013

 

Nuclear Waste and Environmental Justice

After California regulators refused to allow the U.S. Air Force to label residue from radioactive aircraft instruments as “naturally occurring” – declaring it unsuitable for a Bakersfield-area dump – the military turned to Idaho with the same story.  There, military officials met with success. The Air Force is now sending radioactive waste from Sacramento County’s McClellan Air Force Base to a Grand View, Idaho, hazardous waste landfill.

This solution involved a bit of legal semantics rejected in California despite 10 months of Air Force lobbying: The military claimed radium dust left over from glow-in-the-dark aircraft instruments actually was naturally occurring, putting it the same relatively lax regulatory category as mine tailings, according to government memos obtained by California Watch through a public records request.  Larry Morgan, a health physicist with the California Department of Public Health, disagreed with that characterization. Radioactive paint does not “meet the definition” of naturally occurring waste, he wrote in a September 2011 memo.

The Idaho facility’s permit allows it to accept materials defined as natural without notifying state regulators, leaving the state’s hazardous waste manager in the dark.  “I’m not familiar with this particular waste stream. I intend to find out now that you’ve contacted me,” Robert Bullock, hazardous waste permits manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said during an October interview.  The redefinition of the waste as natural might not even have been necessary, given Idaho’s different standards for waste containing trace amounts of radium.

Days after the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality told California Watch that the agency was unaware of the Air Force waste, an official went out to inspect the landfill. Interviewed after that visit, engineer Dennis Meier said the dumping was legal because of the low concentration of radium in the soil, despite the source.  “It’s not waste that has to go to a radioactive waste facility,” he said. “The concentration is way below what we would accept.”

Nonetheless,California health officials and environmental activists accused the Air Force of bending the truth to get its way.  “Illuminated instrument dials do not naturally occur,” said Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz who leads the environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap. “I can’t dig into the soil and discover naturally occurring radium instrument dials.”

The radioactive dirt in question hails from the former McClellan Air Force Base northeast of Sacramento,now a commercial development site.“At least 24 sites” on the base “all have low levels of radium mixed in with the soil, and there are many thousands of cubic yards” of contaminated soil, according to Philip Mook, Western region senior representative for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which is in charge of cleanups at Air Force installations. “A little bit of radium goes a long way.”  The Air Force has sent 22,000 tons of radioactive dirt from McClellan out of state so far, according to Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, if significant radium is inhaled or ingested, it can increase the risk of diseases such as lymphoma, bone cancer and leukemia. While the concentrations in the McClellan soil are low, they are above limits the federal government has set to protect human health.  Before these medical effects became evident, aircraft dials and gauges were painted with glowing radium so pilots could see them better at night. Air Force officials speculate that the radium became dispersed in the soil at McClellan “probably in cleanup water, like mop water or solvents that were used to clean the equipment or to clean up spills of radium,” Mook said. Although radium paint wasn’t used on the base after the 1950s, items contaminated with it remained…

Stephen Woods, chief of the California Department of Public Health’s Division of Food, Drug and Radiation Safety, argued in a Nov. 4, 2011, letter that the dirt should be sent to “a licensed low-level radioactive waste disposal facility.” The Idaho facility where the soil is now going does not meet that criteria. Neither do any California waste disposal facilities.  That’s partly because of vocal opposition from local Kern County residents and environmental groups.  “Hazardous waste landfills in low-income communities of color in California aren’t the right places for” nuclear waste, said Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, which for almost two decades has fought to limit the Buttonwillow landfill’s expansion and impact on local residents.

But in the past, the landfill has accepted nuclear waste. In 1998 and 1999, the Army Corps of Engineers sent residue from the Manhattan Project, the World War II-era research and development program that produced atomic bombs dropped in Japan, to the landfill.  The move outraged civilian officials.  Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer testified before a Senate committee on July 25, 2000: “When I learned that the Corps had disposed of 2,200 tons of radioactive waste at an unlicensed hazardous waste facility in Buttonwillow, California, I was shocked. The facility sits atop aquifers that supply water to the Central Valley of California.”  Since the Manhattan Project controversy, the facility’s permit has been tightened. Yet the landfill’s current permit states that it may accept naturally occurring radioactive materials at low concentrations….

US Ecology, which operates the hazardous waste landfill in Grand View, Idaho, seemed to accept the terminology.  Steve Welling, senior vice president of sales and marketing for US Ecology, said in an interview that “state law and our permits” allowed the facility to accept the waste that the Air Force had characterized as naturally occurring.

Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, Air Force Ships Calif. Radioactive Waste To Idaho Landfill, NBC, Nov. 9, 2012